Dice & Deadlines: The Nitty Gritty on Writing for RPG Companies

Now that I have talked about freelancing (July) and contracts (August), it is time to get into the nitty gritty of what it is like to write for an RPG company. There’s more to it than just creating awesome worlds for people to immerse themselves in. It’s work and comes with its own unique problems.

Playing in Someone Else’s Sandbox

The first thing you need to remember is that you are playing in someone else’s sandbox. Most of the RPG writing you will do as freelancer will be in already established worlds with set rules for everything from weapons to magic to using skills. Moreover, you are writing in a world that someone out there loves beyond life itself and they will (I promise you) know if you mess up in any way. If you mess up a stat, a rule, a name, an ability, a border or how a person of a particular religious order pours a drink for someone of a higher station, they will know.

Then you get angry forum posts about how you ruined the game.

In an attempt to mitigate this problem before it begins, many companies have databases, wikis and FTP repositories of information and previously published books. When it comes to long standing companies with RPG worlds that have been around for decades, this is the only way to maintain continuity and when writing for an established game world, continuity is your friend. It is the RPG author’s duty to maintain that continuity at all times. Never hesitate to consult with your peers if you are uncertain about a fact.

Outlines and Word Counts

Next comes the technical particulars of the contract (and you do have a contract don’t you?) from your editor. This usually comes in the form of an outline or a spreadsheet with section headers and word counts on them. What’s this mean? It means that you need to write 400 words on why a person would worship an evil god, 200 words on a new type of monster and 1500 words on the opening fiction for a chapter. You must write what is needed and you must meet your word count.

Outlines are used more often when the RPG author is assigned a large section of a book. This will detail chapter sub-headings, word counts, flavor text sections and example adventures. However, the RPG author needs to be flexible. I have had both the detailed outline with an overall word count with section break downs and word counts and I have had a single chapter title heading with a word count and nothing else. (I looked at how previous chapters were broken out and mimicked that. Again, continuity.)

When it comes to word counts, custom allows a 10% overwrite or underwrite for a section. However, as an editor, and talking to other editors, you should never, ever underwrite your assigned section in a book. It is easier to cut words than to add them. From experience, you will get an intuitive understanding for how long a certain number of works is and be able to write to near that length on a first draft.

Fundamental Understandings

Finally, there is an intangible thing you need to understand when it comes to writing in an established world. You need to understand the feel of what has gone before and to maintain that feel. If the RPG is horror, you don’t introduce camp. If the RPG is a comedy, you don’t attempt to be serious. You keep to the path when you are working in someone else’s world. Your new blood is there to give the RPG new life but not take away from what is already there.

When I am hired to write in a new RPG that I am unfamiliar with (something I don’t really recommend), I try to get into that RPG. I make a character. If I can do it, I coax someone who is already familiar with the established setting into running a game for me. I learn what I can through game play and I try to take into me what it is that the established fan base of the setting loves about it. With this experience, I think I do a better job at writing in that world.

Do you have a specific question on some of these details about writing in established RPG worlds? Ask, I’ll be happy to talk to you about it.

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